"I'm stressed out" is a pretty common saying these days. It's not the stress that kills us though, it's our reaction to it. Even with a crazy schedule and commitments, it's possible to take some time to slow down and live with intention. I'm sure many of you know the short-term side effects of stress, including some of the following...
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Mood swings
- Food cravings, especially caffeine or sugar
- Digestive distress - constipation, diarrhea, stomach cramps, gas, bloating
However, chronic stress can play a role in chronic disease, such as heart disease or diabetes. Chronic stress leads to increased cortisol levels (our stress hormone). Among many roles, cortisol can increase blood sugars, weaken your immune system (ever get sick when you're stressed?), increase fat accumulation and decrease your ability to burn fat, increase cravings (especially sugar!), and lead to mood imbalances, depression, or anxiety.
Stress harms digestion.
When you stress-eat, you're much more likely to feel sick to your stomach or have digestive distress in the form of cramping, bloating, excessive gas, diarrhea, constipation, or acid reflux. Compare how you feel from stress-eating that candy bar to how you feel after a relaxed meal out at your favorite restaurant.
Stress turns on our autonomic nervous system, or our "fight or flight" response. Your heart and breathing rate increase, and you're geared up to literally, fight or sprint away as fast as you can.
The problem is the blood flows to our muscles and away from our digestive tract when our autonomic nervous system is turned on by stress. We need to be in a relaxed state (sympathetic nervous system) to digest our food properly. It's the same reason runners complain of digestive distress when eating during a race, or why people may run to the bathroom when they're nervous.
5 Tips for Stress Free Eating
1.) Sit down to eat.
Scarfing down food in the car or mindlessly snacking everytime you enter the kitchen does not allow for adequate digestion. Sitting down to meals with your family, friends, or yourself and focusing on the food in front of you allows for a more relaxed, enjoyable meal time. It can be a time to socialize or just separate yourself from the hustle-bustle of life.
Make meal times stress-free. Put away your computers or phones. Take a few deep breaths before eating, and forget about what happened earlier that day or what you have to do after eating.
3.) Eat mindfully.
Slow down. Savor each bite. Chew well. Stop when you're full. Don't keep eating just to clear your plate.
4.) Don't stress about the "perfect" diet.
The pursuit of health or the perfect diet shouldn't be stressful, but it can be when people worry about eating a "healthy" diet 100% of the time. Replace this all-or-nothing thinking with the idea of 90/10. Choose nutrient-dense foods 90% of the time, and don't worry about the last 10%. If you want a glass of wine on Friday night or a dessert to celebrate, go for it! Savor it.
5.) Avoid foods that stress your digestion.
Choose foods that make you feel energized. After you eat, pay attention to how you feel. If you notice digestive distress (bloating, nausea, cramps, gas, diarrhea, constipation) or other symptoms such as headaches, you may not be digesting that food well, or there could be an allergy or intolerance. Pay attention to your body, and limit foods that lead to symptoms. Eliminate them, eat smaller quantities, or try introducing them when you are fully relaxed again to see how your body reacts.
After all, health is holistic. If you have the perfect diet but are stressed all the time, your digestion and the rest of your health will be off-balance. Develop stress-management techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, find ways to decrease stress, such as yoga, socializing, or reading, and prioritize sleep to manage overall stress. Use these to stop stress-eating or cravings. Deep breathe or do a few sun salutations when you're craving that bag of chips after a stressful day at work. Those chips won't dissolve your stress, but deep breathing may help.
Stress management is a goal most of us can continually work on, and the new year is the perfect time to start.